August 04, 2005

"on" time

My flight from Philly to Denver was a couple of hours late, I missed my connection to San Jose, and I'm waiting for the next flight. The good part is I had plenty of time to read Elmore Leonard's Mr. Paradise, which I bought to read on the plane. On page 332 (of the 2004 Harper paperback), I noticed a way of marking immediate future time, in the family of gonna, gone, I'ma, I'monna and so on, that's new to me. Well, really it's not, in the sense that I even blogged about it before, but I didn't understand what I wrote at the time.

The characters are Frank Delsa, acting lieutenant of Squad Seven, Homicide Section, Detroit Police Department, and Orlando Holmes, a drug dealer who killed three of his suppliers and cut one of them up with a chain saw. Delsa speaks first.

"You know who put the stuff on you?"
"Somebody close to me, his girlfirend's punk-ass brother. Is how it goes. But listen, I'm on tell you something, I was scared."

Google finds a discussion of "I'm on tell you" in an reader review of Donna Tartt's "The Little Friend":

Tartt has written a novel with all of Faulkner's insights about the South in clear, enjoyable prose. She adds the element of likeable characters and believable women, both black and white. She has captured the language of the white "redneck" class: "on" is exactly how we say "going to," "I'm on tell you one more time."

Leonard's Orlando Holmes is an African-American living in Detroit. I've heard the form that this orthography represents, I think, though my own dialect's version of it is I'monna. At least I think they're equivalent. But Carrie Shanafelt characterizes I'monna as a "deep Southernism".

(And I should have seen the connection to "on", given Carrie's observation that "I'monna go run" is "more often 'I'monngo run'" -- but I didn't unpack the the run-together orthography and the doubled 'n'.)

Now, I'monna is not exclusively southern, since I use it, and I was born and raised in rural eastern Connecticut. However, I'll take Carrie's observation as evidence that the form is used in the south, wherever else it may show up. But then what's the difference between "I'monna tell you" and "I'm on tell you"?

Is this just a variant pronunciation, an instance of the sporadic loss of unstressed vowels in some (I think mostly rural) southern dialects? That's what Carrie's remark suggests.

Or have some speakers re-analyzed the form as a version of the spatial preposition on? That would be a sensible thing to do, but if it happened very often, I'd expect to see more hits for spellings like { "I'm on tell you"}.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 4, 2005 03:14 PM